Ancient Corinth was an extravagant pagan city, steeped in a customs and traditions that were quite foreign to the ethics of Torah. Shaul (Paul) struggled to teach his Jesus-following Corinthians a new way of life in a city that beckoned them to idolatry. Paul states, “An idol is nothing in the world and there is no God but one” (1 Cor 8:4). But this Jewish aversion towards idols did not always make sense in a Gentile environment.

Like Paul, the rabbis were also concerned with how Jews should act among idols. Rabban Gamaliel was once asked why he used a bathhouse that contained images of the goddess Aphrodite, despite the Torah’s prohibition against idols (see Deuteronomy 13). Gamaliel explained that there is a difference between a public bathhouse that is embellished with images and a house of Aphrodite outfitted with baths. Insofar as the rabbi needed to bathe, and the bathhouses were constructed by pagan Romans, Gamaliel says of the idol, “I did not come into her domain, rather she came into mine” (Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 44b). Since Gamaliel was not actively worshiping such idols, but merely taking a bath amidst what he saw as worthless and powerless decorations, he deemed it acceptable to utilize the Roman establishment.

Since, according to Paul, idols have no real power, some interpreters read Paul’s teaching as excusing the practice of eating food at pagan temples. Paul states, “Not all men have this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled. But food will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat.” (1 Co 8:7–8 NASB). The imagined scenario is that the strong believers ate food at pagan temples and did not sin before God. But for the weak in their faith, such food would be defiling. Paul entertains this scenario without validating it, since he knew that Gentiles should “abstain from things contaminated by idols” (Acts 15:20 NASB). Indeed, he personally spread these very Jewish rules in pagan cities (Acts 15:22), so why would he not hold to this anti-idol stipulation in his discourse with the Corinthians?

Paul was answering a hypothetical theological question in First Corinthians: “If idols are not real, then why can’t we eat food sacrificed to them?” Jews knew that association with idols would send a message that contradicted Israel’s faith in the one God, but the Gentile Corinthians were yet to understand this idea. Paul’s advises his congregants that, although idols are powerless, one should avoid eating idol-associated meat in order to ensure that no one stumbles in his or her faith (see 1 Cor 8:13). Paul was not endorsing the consumption of meat sacrificed to idols; rather, he was following a Jewish ethical framework that emphasized modeling behaviors that would promote the God of Israel to the benefit of the Jesus-believing community.

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33 COMMENTS

  1. What should Christ followers do with regard to eating Halal food (most often in the context of Asian restraunts, although also with invitations to muslim homes)?

    • Dear John, I usually do not presume to be an authority in people’s lives as far as the actual practice of faith is concerned, but Paul in this very passage shares a Jewish approach that solves the dilemma. He says if this is the problem, then I will not eat meat… This is what I personally do. When in doubt – go vegetarian.

    • jon … i feel that food , is food and should be a choice [ a sper the menu ] eat what you will , and if its by a muslim and you like it …eat it and stay focused on your core belief .

  2. It was very difficult for me when I lived in a country where people eat things that aren’t healthy and which the source is also questionable. Sometime I had to decline because there were no other food choices. I never felt guilty for rejecting certain foods but I was always diplomatic about it. But on one occasion in which I was surprised when students invited me to a restaurant, the students became offended after I rejected the foods in that restaurant. The relationship between us was never mended but I never regretted it. Doing the right thing is costly.

    • Yes, that is not an easy thing to do. Usually rejected hospitality is a taken badly. Some cultures are particularly sensitive. But if you tell people that in order to accept their offer you have to break a covenant with God, people understand.

      • I am not a confrontational person and at times I choose to walk away rather than clarify. But sometimes it’s best to do that because some people refuse to listen to your arguments or reasons. The only good thing that came out of that incident is that one of the students befriended me and he became the spokesperson for the group of students. I could not reveal that I was a Jew because of the potential anti-Semitism in that society. Sometimes it’s best to ignore because some might use what you say against you and worsen the situation.

        • Good call. Often silence is better. The price is easier to pay if one knows that he is paying it for a good reason and not something trivial. Glad to have you with us. Thanks for chiming in on the conversation.

          • Thank you. I’ve learned new concepts and ideas, and some concepts and ideas that I had have been clarified and challenged as a result of your teachings. Some Torah teachers believe the main problem being addressed was not clean-unclean foods but rather the idea by cults and others that meat was harmful to spirituality. I have come across people who are like those ancients rav Shaul addressed. I even have an Israeli friend who’s a vegetarian. Her reasons for avoiding meat are to “save” the planet and animals. Maybe this was the main problem rav Shaul was challenging…?

          • No, in Shaul’s day no one tried to save the planet by avoiding meat. I have also met people whose vegetarianism is a religion tied to environmentalism. First of all most people in the ancient world ate vegetarian meals for the most part. Not because of conviction but because of the economy. The food industry was not developed as it is today and people ate items most accessible. The meat was eaten rarely because of its expense. There are several reasons why some people in the ancient world chose to be completely vegitarian. But that is another article, perhaps.

  3. Excellent explanation. Paul well understood the issue of conscience as should we. If our friends are vegetarian, we would not offer them a steak. If they were recovering alcoholics, we would not offer them wine. Although there is nothing wrong with steak or wine, it would be a kindness to respect their consciences.

  4. Prof, What about Ja 1:27 keeping self from pollution? Otherwise, I go w 1 Co 10:27-28 Food is food & it’s good unless it disturbs someone. I think 1 Co 8:7 is ok being STRONG which is far more than merely established in the faith. Idol temple not mentioned but the whole earth is included. Children of God don’t but stay in God’s presence. 1 Jo 2:14 Sons are STRONG (& clothed w POWER from on high), else get polluted, back slide & attacked spiritually being in the company of “old” practices & friends. Your enemies come like a flood!!!

    • I don’t know what to say more… In my understanding, the traditional position of abstaining from any association with idol worship stands and the writings of apostles are full of this type of language.

  5. Paul said if you are under the Law, Jesus died for nothing. Think about this. Lots of misinformation by not consistently holding to all NT scripture.

  6. What does it mean not to eat blood? How do we know that meat sold in supermarkets has been bled & that the animals were not strangled? Does the blood rule apply to fish?

    • Because of the commercial aspect, most people have no way of knowing such details, which is why Kosher meat exists. With fish, not so much, their body systems are different. As long as fish is appropriately cleaned there should be no blood.

  7. Idol worship goes deeper that believing in a none living stone statue, is it not the underlying belief structure surrounding the Idol. From the research that I have done, the beliefs surrounding these idols are focused on selfishness, self-centered, Greed and so on. For example when the ark of the covenant was captured by the Philistines and Brought into the temple dedicated to Dagon, The next morning the statue was fallen over and and its neck broken, Where as the Ark was still standing. Dagon represents prosperity, and we Know the philistines were robbers and Thieves and they would use their military power to go into Israel and steal. Where as a relationship with a Holy God, one would begin to understand He is a giver and not a taker, he is a blesser.
    He Gives us healing, but why was the man lame from birth so fixed on getting up to the pagan temple and didn’t understand the healer was in front of him
    He gives Rain and it returns not until it has accomplished what it has set out to do.
    He gives us his word and it will not return void
    When we pray do we pray selfishly or like Solomon an ask for the Peoples benefit?
    correct me if I am wrong I think God really wants to be needed not despised or rejected by his creation.
    I think he wants to be our helper in the time of need, not to some stone statue or Facility.

  8. Hi Prof. Please explain 1Cor.10:25 then. It feels as if Paul said that even pork is not unclean anymore. We in South Africa, in various denomination dont see eye to eye about this issue. Some beleive it was only for Israel due to health reasons in the wilderness time.

    • I thought you read this one already – https://weekly.israelbiblecenter.com/no-questions-asked/ No pork here. Paul is actually not concerned with the type of meat Corinthians ate, pork, elephants or donkeys… His concern is idolatry. Paul did not believe that his non-Jewish disciples had to observe Jewish food laws living in a non-Jewish world. Still… no blood, no idols. That he believed was universally binding (goes back to Noah).

      • Then he disagreed with the author of Revelation then…..2:14. And notice both Acts (15:20) and Revelation associate the practice with fornication – the biblical metaphor for heresy.

  9. Sorry word count…… in our Word translation(afrikaans) it does not state food market, it says butchery, that is why I mentioned the pork for example

  10. 2000 yrs. later on this side of the cross and it’s still hard for new converts, both pagan and Jew, to accept that their idols and their law no longer apply to believers.

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